• Where I am:

A. Bakratcheva,The Call of Green:Thoreau

ID III.1.r3


Albena Bakratcheva, The Call of the Green: Thoreau and Place – Sense in American Writing, Veliko Tarnovo: Faber Publishers, 2009. 212 pp., BGN 18.

- Richard J. Schneider (Wartburg College)

Albena Bakratcheva’s new book, The Call of the Green: Thoreau and Place Sense in American Writing, reaffirms both the depth and breadth of her knowledge. In this book she probes further depths of Emerson and Thoreau and the Transcendentalist group of American writers as they attempt to connect to a sense of America as a unique physical, psychological, and cultural space. She also extends the scope of her argument to other cultural spaces: to Britain in her discussion of Thoreau’s essay on Thomas Carlyle and to Bulgaria in an interesting and important essay on connections between American and Bulgarian writers. The scope of her book also extends in time to contemporary American writers such as the cultural critic Thomas Friedman and poets Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov, and Susan Howe.
Her linking of Thoreau to the British writer Thomas Carlyle was of special interest to me, because there has been relatively little written about Thoreau’s interest in Carlyle, and Bakratcheva offers many fresh insights into the topic. The chapters on the significance of naming, both Thoreau’s changing of his own name and his concern with the names of places such as Cape Cod, are also fresh and original. In some ways, however, her chapter on the history and significance of Thoreau’s reputation and availability in Bulgaria and the connection of his writing to the “velvet revolution” might be the most significant one in the book, because most readers of Thoreau do not fully understand the global reach of Thoreau’s writing.
This new book demonstrates Bakratcheva’s complete mastery not only of the full range of primary American literature texts, but also of literary scholarship about specific writers such as Emerson and Thoreau and about American literature and culture in general. There are important insights in this book, and the fact that it is being published in English will make Bakratcheva’s insights more accessible to American readers and literary critics, who will be very interested in what she has to say. I have sometimes thought that a writer can be fully understood only by a reader from his or her own culture; however, Bakratcheva’s writings about American literature have convinced me that I am wrong. She fully understands what is uniquely American about the writers whom she discusses, and her European perspective proves to be a genuine asset.
Both of her most recent books - Visibility Beyond the Visible. The Artistic Discourse of American Transcendentalism (2007) and The Call of the Green. Thoreau and Place-Sense in American Writing (2009) - connect her to the mainstream of current American literary criticism. Ecocriticism, the relation of literature to place, has become increasingly important in literary scholarship in the last two decades, and the bibliography of her new book demonstrates that she is well read in the most recent ecocriticism. She agrees with ecocritic Lawrence Buell that Thoreau’s late writings shift to an “ecocentric” perspective (that is, one focused empirically on nature itself more than on its uses for humanity) while never abandoning his earlier Transcendentalist principles. Her books are a significant contribution to this branch of literary criticism.

- Alexander Gungov (University of Sofia)

Albena Bakratcheva has chosen the specific American sense of place as the lens through which to view the artistic achievement as well as the philosophical and religious ideas of the New England Transcendentalists, to reconsider the heritage of several contemporary American literary figures, and to follow the reception of Transcendentalist works in Bulgaria; the same approach is taken in her reflections on the literary and social dimensions of postmodernism and contemporary globalization.
The author pays due attention to the specificity of the term “transcendental” in its American context, emphasizing the significance of the prefix “trans-” as a link between the New England thinkers’ inspirations and the dreams and intentions of the first settlers in the New World and of the Founding Fathers. At the same time, Bakratcheva aptly supports the claim that the transcendental be regarded as transatlantic. Finally, she discovers in the Transcendentalists’ general attitude, especially in Thoreau, the original Kantian notion of transcendental synthesis as organizing and comprehending totalities.
The unique sense of genius loci is seen as decisive for the world outlook and artistic horizon of the New England writers. Perceived by them intuitively and even mystically, genius loci provides the Transcendentalists with an essential advantage over the worldliness of their British counterparts in terms of their scope of intellectual and artistic sensitivity. The specificity of Transcendentalist ideas is further supported by juxtaposing the Transcendentalists with those American contemporaries following the impulses of Romanticism, Poe in particular. This is accomplished by contrasting the Platonic flavor of the Transcendentalist synthetic idea of beauty with Poe’s conviction regarding the self-sufficiency of beauty. Another difference between the two trends is identified in the primary role of principles in Poe’s views of artistic creativity versus Emerson’s reliance on poetic inspiration.
Bakratcheva’s interpretation of Thoreau’s name change is a good example of her exceptional hermeneutical flair. In her opinion, this transformation is linked with the beginning of a new life, one of whose expressions is the keeping of a diary. The beginning of a new life, in which art is indispensable and the mark of character, encourages Thoreau to change his name, not in order to adopt a pseudonym, but to create his authentic name. This self-naming is not a contingent act, if we bear in mind the significance which the Transcendentalists ascribe to the personality and, at the same time, their reluctance to make their personal world public. In this way, a paradox of self-concentration as opposed to self-transcendence emerges. This paradox makes possible the unification of entirely different artists and thinkers whose only common trait is their difference and non-conformism.
Bakratcheva’s book devotes appropriate consideration to the reception of Transcendentalist ideas in Bulgaria. The author touches on a number of moments in the history of post-Liberation Bulgarian literature which have contributed to the adoption of Transcendentalism. In her view, the ground for the penetration of Transcendentalism was prepared by the intellectual circle around the journal Misal; nevertheless, Bakratcheva also offers solid arguments in support of the hypothesis that Thoreau became popular in Bulgaria thanks to Russian translations of Walden and Civil Disobedience. Against this background, the prominent Bulgarian spiritual leader Petar Danov makes an appearance. Danov’s ideas seem to be consonant with those of the New England writers, and it is possible that he might have studied their work while getting his medical training in Boston. Special attention is devoted to the role that Civil Disobedience played in shaping the Bulgarian dissident movement and in mobilizing the civil protests in Bulgaria after the 1989 regime change.
An appropriate parallel is made between the genius loci as experienced by the Transcendentalists and another New England writer, Susan Howe, who unfolds a new “frontier mythology.” Bakratcheva points out that Howe has to be perceived first of all through the person-place relation, which is fundamental for her writing. It is along these lines that the typical postmodernism of this poet is analyzed. Bakratcheva draws the well-founded conclusion that Howe, together with several other American authors, makes a significant contribution to overcoming the feeling of a paralyzed perpetual present, and provides an opportunity to leave behind the crisis of historical perception intrinsic to the postmodern sensibility as described by Fredric Jameson.
The topic of postmodern poetics is connected with the issue of glocalization. Bakratcheva considers this neologism to be typical of the American mentality. As long as the dialectic of the general and the one is presumed in the concept, this interpretation suggests the motto “E Pluribus Unum” and in this mode naturally gives an American connotation to the socio-political and cultural transformation known as glocalization.
One cannot help but admire the philosophical intuitions contained in Bakratcheva’s analysis: the existential interpretation of Thoreau alluding to Heidegger’s thesis that in its very existence Dasein is thematizing the meaning of its being; the Socratic call to meditation for the sake of self-knowledge; as well as the Hegelian motives regarding the Transcendentalist interest in the poet’s personality, not as something arbitrarily subjective, but as an expression of what surpasses any individual subjectivity in the burst of mystical ecstasy.
The Call of the Green manages in a unique way to delineate one of the most typical characteristics of the American world outlook and of American literature—the identification with the genius loci. In this treatise, a European approach can very easily be perceived, one which not only allows it to stand out from the “native” American research in the field, but also to bridge a gap in Bulgarian and European American studies. Bakratcheva’s work combines in a harmonious way elegant literary criticism with profound philosophical analysis. It contributes to a further rapprochement and mutual understanding between literature and philosophy. Last but not least, the brilliant English of this text not only assures it access to worldwide American studies, but makes it an example for any scholar in the field of the humanities.